Monday, May 9, 2011

Getting the answer right

As you can imagine, finding answers is easy--but showing that they're right is another thing.

In the daily puzzle, we're constantly learning what makes for a good puzzle (short, easy to state, clear method for solution, unambiguous answer).  And it's that last point that makes life in a Google-world much more difficult for puzzle-writers.

Last week, for example, we gave the following puzzle:

This is a nice puzzle.  It's short, there's a pretty clear method to solve it... but it's a little ambiguous.

What we meant to say was:  "You are standing in the farthest west incorporated U.S. town in the lower 48 states with a population of one person.  What is the official, posted speed limit?"

But, as you can see, it's a longer, less appealing question.  Yes, there are towns in Alaska and Hawai'i that have 1 resident, but in our defense, they're all unincorporated (at least the ones I found).

It's not a great question, though, because--who knows?--since we wrote this question, a town might have turned into a population-size-one town, and the answer wouldn't reflect the current state of affairs.  Rats.

So it's a bit tricky to write these kinds of questions.  Especially when there are multiple potential ways of answering the same question.  For instance, many puzzlers wrote in to point out that Quirky Travel Guy said the speed limit was 40 mph.  We report the speed limit as 30.  What's up with this?  

The big, fundamental point I would love to make in the puzzle is that while people can FIND answers, they need to also learn to evaluate their level of credibility.  A self-admitted "quirky travel guy" (while very entertaining), is not nearly as compelling as seeing the speed limit sign at the edge of town via StreetView.  (Use the plus-widget in the map streetview panel below to zoom in on the speed limit sign.)  

View Larger Map

And that's the drawback of the short-form of the puzzle.  I'd love to be able to write longer back-stories like this, but can't quite fit it into the 420 character limit of the answer space!  

Search lesson:  Always second-source your findings, and when in doubt, choose the one that seems more likely to be true in the long run.  

Lesson for teachers:  There are always interesting other interpretations of your questions.  Think about those when designing your test questions!  (And, most importantly, try out your test questions before assigning them to students.  Writing good questions is an art!)  

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